Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Wounded God 4: Was it all “finished” on the cross?

They thought it was finished—and that they were finished with it: “We had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Israel.”

But he was dead, and the glorious mission seemed over. Then, through appearance and visitation, through illumination and encounter, they came to realize it had only begun. Their own involvement in the redemption of the world, that is; for it became clear this startlingly alive, transformed and enduring Presence was not going to accomplish it without their active participation: “As the Father has sent me, so send I you.” (John 20:21)

One wonders how they felt about that. The gospels, of course, present a picture of astonished joy, and surely that was the main reaction. But there are also indications of continuing uncertainty and doubt. We even find the apostles (hiding out?) in Galilee even after receiving Christ's risen “peace be with you” greeting with its commission to “remit sins.” And what are they doing? “I go a-fishing,” Simon Peter declares, and they all hit the boats. (John 21) What’s that about? Possible yearnings to go back to the familiar life they had left behind to follow him on this wild-goose-chase of Messianic hopes?

Not your ancestors' Messiah

So consider this possibility: Jesus had dismayed them by getting himself killed while they had stubbornly, against all warnings, still believed he would give them plum positions in a new government. (Mark 10:36-38) Then he surprised them by reclaiming their lives after his death. By being crucified, he had re-defined the meaning of “Messiah” in the most wrenching way: the one who was supposed to be the great Rescuer had not performed the expected rescue. Indeed, the heart of the meaning of a crucified Messiah is that God is not, primarily, a rescuer. Redemption doesn’t work that way.

Of course they had been challenged to accept this all through his ministry. According to the gospels they just refused to absorb fully what he showed them. From the beginning he made them his partners, trained them, sent them out in the power of the Spirit to share in his work. On the way to the Holy City, while they vied for those governmental positions, he asked them if they were willing to undergo his “baptism” — persistence to the kingdom vision even at the cost of life.

So now, underneath the joy and excitement, there’s maybe the final shock that, after all, the world isn’t going to be miraculously saved from its reckless and destructive ways, souls aren’t going to be brought from darkness to light, without a commitment from them that will cost them (as T.S. Eliot puts it) “nothing less than everything.”

Who wouldn’t be tempted to return to the fishing business? But there he is, a mysterious figure on the shore at dawn, asking them about their catch, and hosting yet another meal, challenging them to shoulder the task yet once again: “The works that I do you will do, and even greater works than these." (John 14:12)

The suffering of Christ is not yet complete

The resurrection challenge to them is to shoulder his task and take their place in the drama of God's own soul-and-world redemption. “As he is, so are we in the world.” (1 John 4:17)The joyful parts of this will be healing the sick and building compassionate community. The risky and possibly sorrowful parts will involve challenging the power-structures of evil in the world and their vicious kick-back, as Jesus did. The johnny-come-lately apostle Paul puts it this way: " my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions." (Colossians 1:24)

Something "lacking in Christ's afflictions”? Paul's statement, taken at face value (and how else could we take it?), would be considered the rankest heresy in many conservative Christian circles. A wide swath of Christian teaching speaks of the “finished work of Christ upon the cross” and hymns proclaim that “Jesus did it all.” All we’ve got to do is accept Christ’s “finished work” by faith, and —behold!— forgiveness of sins, eternal life are ours.

Nonetheless, there it is, along with all Jesus’ acts of initiating his followers into his work, Paul’s bold statement that he is a “co-worker” with God (1 Corinthians 3:9) and his mystical perception that Christ dwells, quite literally, in the heart of the believer, working together with us for good in a difficult world that needs repair, rebuilding and redemption from its evil possibilities.

I don’t mean at all to deny that Cross and Resurrection are cosmically decisive events. I accept completely that Christ was "delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification" (1 Corinthians 15:3), and the whole apostolic proclamation that if we enter into the mystery of Jesus’ dying and rising our whole relationship to God is realigned. But to believe “Jesus did it all” and we just "accept it by faith" is to miss the very meaning of the wrenching re-definition of Messiah as the Crucified One, the embodiment of the Wounded-yet-persistent-God. We must make up "what is lacking....”

The resurrection challenge: participation in Christ

The name of this process is participation. God doesn’t save the world alone, and we certainly can’t do it alone. We are co-operators, synergoi as Paul puts it, literally “co-energizers.” (! Corinthians 3:9)

The “kingdom does not come by observation” (Luke 17:20) but by gradual processes like plant growth and bread rising. In Christ, God has united human nature itself with Divine nature so that the divine Spirit works “by, with, and under” human effort. The cross is sign and seal of God's perpetual entry into all human difficulty and suffering, of God's taking it all into his heart to open every circumstance to the air and light of the Spirit.

The beloved spiritual “He’s got the whole world/ in his hands,” comforting as it is, is only half true. The missing verse is “He gave the whole world/ into our hands,” as Genesis 1 so clearly tells us. Fortunately, even larger swaths of Christian thought from Patristic days onward have realized that participation is key.

Continued resistance to the challenge

But, as the New Testament seems to indicate, not everyone got the message. Some voices in the apostolic literature still imagine the Eschaton, the “restoration of all things” is just around the corner, just as some sectors of Christianity, continue to gaze longingly at the clouds, fervently expecting the return of Jesus now, in this generation, in spite of the repeated failure of the outside Rescuer to appear. Christ is the revelation and enactment of a Pattern, the sign of how grace works to bring good out of evil and work redemption even in the midst of tragedy. And that Pattern reappears again and again in lives and situations, redeeming to world.

The risen Christ, finding habitation in hearts and lives that welcome him, remains ready to take our mistakes and tragedies into his wounded hands and begins weaving them into larger patterns where healing and good emerge in ways small and large—

—if we participate lovingly and trustingly in the Pattern of the Wounded One who persists in embracing the world whole and entire: beauty, goodness, and tragic failings alike.

Graphic: Marc Chagall's White Crucifixion

Next week: The glorified Body and our flesh

1 comment:

  1. The idea of participation in the world that is groaning in creation resonates with me - rather than in our passivity accepting that Jesus did it all for us. You say it so eloquently. Thanks.